House of Commons
Thursday 6 January 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Streaming Content Providers: BBFC Rating System
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House. I also welcome the new shadow team.
The Government launched a consultation in August last year to level the playing field between traditional broadcasters and video-on-demand streaming services, to provide a fair competitive framework and ensure that UK viewers receive equivalent standards regardless of the tech they use. That included looking at audience protection measures such as the role of the British Board of Film Classification age ratings. That consultation closed in October. We are now considering our response to the consultation and will publish the next steps in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for his tremendous campaigning work to protect children online and for sharing with the Department details of his recent meeting with the BBFC. We have great trust in its best practice age ratings and, as I have set out, we are currently considering its role, as part of the VOD consultation. We are trying to strike the right balance between freedom of expression, protecting audiences from harm and making sure that traditional broadcasting and streaming services are held to the same standards. If my hon. Friend has additional ideas on how best to do that, I have sent him the details of the lead official in this area and we would welcome his further engagement.
Online Safety Bill
May I echo my colleague’s warm welcome to the shadow Front Bench team, particularly the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell)? I am quite sure that we support different football teams and I know that we are from different cities, but we are both north-westerners and I look forward to a positive working relationship.
I have met a range of stakeholders, including civil society groups, to discuss the Online Safety Bill. I have also had regular meetings with my ministerial colleagues, and I have heard a wide range of opinions on the Bill. I am taking those options into account alongside the recommendations of the Joint Committee.
There has been widespread support throughout this House for the Online Safety Bill, and yet it has been subject to contradictory messaging and delays. None of that is helpful for the Department or good government. Will the Secretary of State finally provide a clear timetable so that the vital work of scrutiny and improvement can begin?
There have been absolutely no delays. The Joint Committee reported on 10 December and the Bill will come to the House very shortly. We have taken time to consider the recommendations carefully, and the recommendations of the Law Commission, and the Bill will be here very shortly.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Select Committee system is the jewel in the crown of Parliament and well capable of providing the right scrutiny. Those are not my words but those of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House. With that in mind, in the upcoming Online Safety Bill will the Secretary of State proceed with utmost caution over the proposed permanent standing Joint Committee, which would curtail her own powers and those of Ministers across Government, and if the precedent were followed to its logical conclusion, it could lead to the dilution of the Select Committee system? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I thank him for his question. The Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is the jewel in the crown, as is the scrutiny of all Select Committees, but the Online Safety Bill is groundbreaking and novel and will legislate in an area in which we have never legislated or enforced before. I am quite sure that the place for the debate about whether or not there will be additional layers of scrutiny will be when the Bill comes before the House.
The Secretary of State may have seen the excellent research in The Guardian newspaper this week showing that search engines such as Google are disguising advertisements as search results, particularly those linked to fossil fuel companies, so much so that ClientEarth describes it as “endemic greenwashing”. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that she will use the Bill to crack down on these over-mighty, arrogant tech platforms?
That is a central purpose of the Bill. As a result of the work by the Joint Committee and others, including the Law Commission and those who have examined the first edition of the draft Bill, when we bring the Bill to the House there will be improvements and enhancements that will go even further in relation to those who use their power on the internet—those big tech companies and others—and the legislation will be there to provide the reassurances that I think the hon. Gentleman is looking for.
Last year, with 50 of my colleagues, I wrote to five of the major social media companies calling for meaningful change and asking them to recognise their moral duty to make this change. Only three of the five even bothered to reply to the correspondence, which makes me concerned that they are not taking the matter seriously enough. Will my right hon. Friend be characteristically robust about ensuring meaningful change in the forthcoming legislation?
I am disappointed to hear about the response from the tech companies, but frankly not surprised. We will bring forward legislation that introduces criminal sanctions, including pretty steep fines—10% of global annual turnover, which could be as much as £18 billion, so they will be considerable. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should not be having to do this. Those organisations have a moral responsibility to provide the protections that young people require. It is their responsibility to ensure that illegal material is no longer placed online, that they remove content that is legal but harmful, but most of all that they protect young people and children. The Bill will have those three considerations at its heart. The companies could be doing what they need to do right now—they do not need the Bill. They could be removing those harmful algorithms right now.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Happy new year to you and to the whole House.
After years of Government delay, we still do not have a confirmed timetable for implementation of online safety legislation. With thousands of unvaccinated covid-19 patients in our hospitals, appalling attacks on NHS workers, and misinformation about the vaccines circulating readily online, what is the Secretary of State doing now—not in a year’s time, not when the legislation is finally enacted—to properly address misinformation about the covid-19 vaccines online?
The disinformation and misinformation unit is working, and we have done everything possible. I know there have been—accusations is a strong word; perhaps concerns. Concerns have been expressed by Opposition Front Benchers that the disinformation and misinformation unit is no longer in existence. That is not the case; it is not true. The unit is there and it is working. We had a pilot, which ran for six months and stopped, but the work from that pilot continues with the disinformation and misinformation unit. That work takes place daily. Daily, we work to remove harmful online content and, particularly when it comes to covid-19 vaccinations, content that provides misinformation and disinformation. Daily, we have contacts with online content providers, and the work is ongoing.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) raised a strong point about scrutiny and good government. Before Christmas, the Secretary of State appointed her preferred candidate as chair of the Charity Commission. Within a week he was gone, after it was discovered that he had behaved inappropriately to women colleagues, sending one a picture of himself in a Victoria’s Secrets store—
Order. I do not think that is linked to the question, which is about the Online Safety Bill. Your question has to be linked; that is why it is taken. I will call you on topicals, so you can ask the question then. [Interruption.] They are not my rules. They are rules the House has set so it is no use getting angry with me. The question has to be relevant.
Covid-19 Plan B: Tourism Industry
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the vital tourism sector. He is right that some of the new rules, including the guidance to work from home, can be difficult for the tourism sector, because movement of people and social interaction is pivotal to a thriving tourism industry, but we have committed to provide support and over £35 billion has already been provided to tourism, hospitality and leisure businesses.
I thank the Minister for that response and his recognition that the advice is causing problems for a number of businesses. He is quite right. People who go out to work often use cafés, restaurants, pubs and shops outside their normal working hours. I know the Chancellor has brought in a package of measures to help businesses, and I do not advocate that businesses be closed, but when they are open but suffering from lower trade, how much they are losing is intangible and difficult to assess. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Chancellor again to see whether any further help can be given where it is necessary?
I thank my constituency neighbour again for raising these important points. We have ongoing dialogue with the Chancellor and the Treasury. The new grants the Chancellor announced just before Christmas will be very important in helping the businesses affected. Many will get the grants automatically. I encourage others—perhaps those on the edges of supply chains—that do not get the grants automatically to apply for the additional restrictions grants. The impact on them may not be obvious, and I appeal to local authorities, which have discretion in the allocation of those grants, to be sympathetic to such claims by the businesses affected in the way my hon. Friend describes.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The theatres, festivals and live events that are such an important part of our tourist offer have all been hit by the uncertainty around plan B, and Government support is not working. The live events reinsurance scheme was meant to protect the music, theatre and live events sector from the impact of covid, but it has been a total flop. It does not cover cancellations due to covid outbreaks, nor does it provide support outside a full national lockdown, which no one wants to happen. Given the demand that will be caused by the continued uncertainty well into the new year, will the Government urgently review the scheme and repurpose it to give businesses and workers the support they need now?
Of course the scheme is really important. We do want to make sure that it works as intended, but it is part of an overall support package for the arts sector, which includes the theatre tax reliefs that were announced prior to Christmas and the all-important culture recovery fund. Again, more money has been released from that. I am confident that the overall package will be of great support to this vital sector.
TV Licence Fee: People over 75
I meet the BBC regularly to discuss a range of issues, including enforcement, and I will meet the chair and director-general next week. The BBC confirmed recently that no enforcement action has been taken against anyone over 75 years of age at this stage. I am clear that the BBC must support those affected by the decision to end free TV licences for over-75s, and I expect it to do so with the utmost sensitivity.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response, but do we trust the BBC? Would it not be much better to remove the power of the BBC to enforce sanctions through the criminal law against those who are over 75 and who are supporting a policy that the Government say they also support?
I reassure my hon. Friend that the entire issue of over-75s and decriminalisation remains very much under review and on my desk. The BBC has confirmed that no enforcement action has been taken. It recently began customer care visits to people aged over 75 who may need additional support in paying the TV licence. Those visits are to assist the over-75s to get appropriately licenced, with the fee paid. I expect the BBC to handle those visits with the utmost sensitivity. I reassure him that this issue is under review.
About six years ago, a previous Government entered into a two-way agreement with the BBC regarding the over-75s. The BBC’s part of the agreement was that it would continue to fund free licence fees for the over-75s. The Government’s part of the agreement was to agree to an increase in the licence fee and to some other aspects that advantaged the BBC. The BBC has broken its part of the agreement. What are the Government doing about our part?
As I said in my previous answer, this is something that I am continuing to review. I reiterate that the BBC has taken no action against anyone over 75 years of age—no one. This is something that I am watching very carefully. I cannot say much more at this stage, but I do have a close eye on it.
My Department is making an enormous contribution to levelling up that positively impacts on people’s lives across the country. Our £1.4 billion investment in digital infrastructure is connecting people wherever they are in the UK; we are investing £850 million into local culture and £560 million into youth clubs in the places that need them most; and we are levelling up through sport with £205 million for community sport pitches, plus our flagship 2022 events such as the Commonwealth games and the rugby league world cup.
The Secretary of State will know that grassroots football clubs, particularly those in deprived areas, are very important for levelling up. I had the pleasure before Christmas of visiting Bourne Vale social club, which helps to sustain Ipswich Vale Exiles, who have 22 youth teams and four men’s teams in one of the most deprived parts of Ipswich. The football teams are dependent on the social club, but the social club is going through really hard times and is struggling to raise enough money to continue to exist. That puts at risk all those football teams. Will the Secretary of State meet me to try to find a way through? Potentially, some of that money might go to the social club, because by helping the social club we would be helping Ipswich Vale Exiles, who are critical to Maidenhall and Chantry, which are up there among the best parts of the town.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that we have paid a huge amount of attention to local football clubs, particularly over the past year, not least as a result of the fan-led review that has been undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is here today.
We continue to provide considerable support for hospitality businesses this year. That is part of around £400 billion of direct support for the economy, which has helped to safeguard jobs, businesses and public services. We have also provided an unprecedented £1 billion to ensure the survival of grassroots professional support and leisure sectors. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.
The current Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is the fourth to promise this House a White Paper on devolution initially and then a White Paper on levelling up. Indeed, we were absolutely promised that the levelling-up White Paper was coming before Christmas. I will not ask the Secretary of State to gaze into the future and predict whether we are actually going to get the White Paper this year, but given that she has answered a question about the levelling-up agenda, could she explain to the House precisely what it is?
It is about levelling up—I am very sure. Equality and opportunity for all is probably the best way to describe it. It is certainly an ethos that is overlaid as a filter on every policy in my Department: equality and opportunity for all. I am very sure that the paper he is looking for will be here shortly, too.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an important part of levelling up is to strengthen local and regional media? They are under terrific pressure at the moment, yet do an important job in holding local institutions to account. Will she look at other ways in which we might do that? Perhaps by extending the local democracy reporting scheme, funded by the tech platforms.
I bow to the expertise of my right hon. Friend, who has served in my job and in the Department for many years, and served as Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I do not think anybody in the House knows as much about this as he probably does, so I bow to his expertise. I would like to talk to him about his ideas on how we can move forward, and I pay tribute to him for having always championed local media throughout his career. I am happy to meet him to discuss that further.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for your warm welcome to me and my new team. I am delighted to be here for my first DCMS questions. May I thank the Secretary of State for her very warm welcome? In the tradition of the Manchester-Liverpool rivalry, I look forward to us fiercely disagreeing at times, but also to us joining forces to advance much-needed change in this agenda.
Does the Secretary of State agree that sport and culture, and the fast-growing creative industries, are absolutely central to levelling up, to place and belonging, and to ensuring that creative jobs are across our regions and nations? If she does agree, now that—I hope—she has read up on the funding of Channel 4 and found that it is not actually funded by the taxpayer, perhaps she could explain how privatising that public service broadcaster will not diminish its crucial role in levelling up, given its unique funding model and its strong track record in creating jobs and opportunity across our regions and nations?
I am absolutely grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to explain my answer about Channel 4, which was misrepresented on social media. Channel 4 does take its public borrowings from the Government and the taxpayer, and that is what I was referring to. Channel 4 borrowings do not come from investment; they come from the Government, and that is what I was talking about in my answer to the Select Committee. I really thank her for the opportunity to put that right.
To go into Channel 4 in more detail—
I think it is very loosely connected to levelling up. I am happy to have a discussion with the hon. Lady about Channel 4 and its impending privatisation, or indeed, whether that happens or not. A consultation has taken place, and we have had over 60,000 responses. We have been working hard in the Department on the unprecedented number of responses; we have been working our way through. We will reach a response very shortly on what we will do with Channel 4, but I give her my assurance that it will be what is best for the sustainability of Channel 4 in the future.
TV Licence Fee
The Government are in the process of determining the level of the licence fee from April this year. We need to deliver value for money for the licence fee payer while ensuring that the BBC can continue to provide high-quality services. We have been having constructive discussions with the BBC, and I believe we are close to reaching an agreement, but I cannot comment further while those negotiations are ongoing. An announcement will be made in Parliament in due course.
The Minister will know that there is growing support for scrapping the licence fee or axing the TV tax, not least in Redcar and Cleveland, where the Bilsdale mast fire left people without TV reception, yet most were not given any sort of refund. Does the Minister agree that this is not an acceptable situation and that if the BBC were a satellite, broadband or phone provider, a refund for time without service and, in some cases, even further compensation would have been expected? Given that the BBC is using my constituents’ licence fees to pay celebs hundreds of thousands of pounds—
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the plight of his constituents after the mast fire in Bilsdale. I have been working very closely with Arqiva to try to restore those services urgently, and I believe 98% of households have now had their Freeview restored, but I believe the BBC has also been issuing refunds. It has got to something like 11,000 refunds now; if my hon. Friend wishes to take this issue up with the BBC, I recommend that he do so.
Gambling Act 2005: Review
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The Gambling Act review is a priority for the Department. We are currently working very carefully through the evidence, including the 16,000 submissions that we received. Our intention is to find ways of introducing reforms to prevent the serious harm caused by gambling addiction while allowing those who can bet safely to do so, and we will publish a White Paper setting out our plans in the very near future.
With gambling firms grooming and sucking vulnerable people into a web of debt and despair, it is crucial that the Government outlaw their exploitative practices as soon as possible. As for their victims, will the Minister commit to talk to Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care so that, alongside his strategy, a comprehensive public health strategy is generated to provide support for people who have experienced gambling harm and to protect people from being sucked into that place?
I agree with the hon. Lady. There are some extremely troubling practices, particularly among online gambling firms, that, as she says, lead people down a path to a very dark place that sometimes leads to suicide. I have met many of the families whose sons, daughters, husbands or wives have tragically committed suicide as a result of gambling addiction.
On co-operating with DHSC, I have already met my colleague the Health Minister to discuss this issue and will be meeting her again on this topic. I have also met NHS clinicians such as Dr Matt Gaskell, who runs the Northern Gambling Clinic in Leeds, to discuss these issues. I have received his very interesting, constructive and useful ideas, which are feeding directly into the review.
While taking evidence from fans during the football review, I was struck by their unprompted concern about the amount of gambling-related content in football. I appreciate that the Minister is new in his role, but could he tell the House whether he or his predecessor have had a chance to meet football fans to discuss their concerns ahead of publication of the review?
I thank my hon. Friend for her work in this area, and particularly for her work on the fan-led review. As a fan of Crystal Palace—a proud south London club—I am very keen to make sure that football fans’ voices are heard. Next week, I am meeting a number of sporting organisations, including the Lawn Tennis Association, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Rugby Football League, the Football Association, the Football League and England Golf. Following the conversation that my hon. Friend and I had on the phone a day or two ago, I have already asked my office to arrange a meeting with the Football Supporters Association, which I hope will happen in the coming days or weeks.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the changes that we all wish to see, but does he believe that the review will result in a strengthening of measures to prevent under-age gambling? When can we expect to see the desperately needed changes come before the House?
Yes, I expect that we will see a strengthening of age-related measures and, indeed, a strengthening of measures more widely, for the reasons that we have mentioned already. Because it is urgent, as the hon. Member says, we intend to publish the White Paper as soon as possible in the coming months.
UK Film and Television Industry
The Government’s actions helped the film and TV industry bounce back from the pandemic, with production now stronger than ever. Our support includes the £500 million production restart scheme, supporting over 88,000 jobs, and the cultural recovery fund, supporting over 200 independent cinemas. We have also built on the UK global screen fund.
One reason why we have such a successful TV and film production sector in this country is the broad ecosystem of large, medium and small businesses that all contribute to that global success. Could I take the Minister back to the point raised earlier about Channel 4? Can she reassure me that specific regard is being given to the small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency and across the north of England who rely on Channel 4 for their first entry into network television commissions? What steps is she taking to ensure they are not disadvantaged?
I would like to provide him with those reassurances. That is very much on my mind, and that of the Secretary of State, as we look at this issue. I read with interest my hon. Friend’s piece in The Times on Channel 4 and levelling up, and the contribution that the broadcaster makes in that regard. In so far as we are minded to sell—no decision has yet been taken—it would be done in order to secure the future of the broadcaster and looking at the wider sector. I assure him that the independent production sector is doing incredibly well and is moving away from a reliance on the public service broadcasters anyway.
I appreciate the support given to our TV industry. However, a big question remains on the viability of the BBC licence fee in today’s modern society. With hundreds of commercial and subscription channels currently available, I urge the Minister to look at the possibility of phasing out this outdated payment model and to consider other options for the BBC to be able to fund itself.
The current licence fee funding model is fixed for the rest of the charter, until 2027, but we will be reviewing the model well in advance of the next charter period. We are considering all options. I appreciate the concerns he raises, which I know are shared by a number of others.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do not think I said happy new year to you at the beginning of questions. Happy new year to everyone here today.
I know it has been a tough few weeks for our world-class arts and culture sector, which has found itself grappling with omicron and covid rather than the festive rush. We have supported the sector throughout the pandemic and in December we doubled the emergency funding available, to £60 million, to overcome this latest challenge.
In the meantime, UK tech enjoyed another record-breaking year in 2021—I think this country had three times the tech investment of any other EU country. As we head into 2022, it promises to be a historic year for the future of the UK. We continue to make fantastic progress on our three showstopper events—Birmingham Commonwealth games, Unboxed and Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee, all of which will bring the whole country together in a year of celebration and renewal.
The online safety Bill will be before the House very shortly. I do not think I can answer the hon. Lady’s particular question, because that is not a policy of the Department—it is not our policy area—but the online safety Bill will be here shortly and we can discuss it further.
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents on organising what sounds like an incredibly successful event. He and I know just how important sport and physical activity is for our physical and mental health.
At the recent spending review, the Chancellor announced an additional £205 million for up to 8,000 community football pitches and multi-use sports facilities across the country. Every year, our arm’s length body, Sport England, distributes millions of pounds to support grassroots sport right across the country, including more than £180,000 in my hon. Friend’s constituency since 2019.
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to all in the House.
There is a total lack of ambition to make Britain a world leader on high-speed broadband. Reforms made in 2017 are holding back 5G connectivity in many areas across the country. Instead of paying a fair price to sports clubs, churches and local authorities to host and upgrade masts, the telecoms companies are slashing rents and holding community and sports groups to ransom through the courts, to boost their bottom lines—multibillion-pound organisations making profits on the backs of groups that have kept our communities going during the darkest days of the pandemic. Will the Government look again at the scope of the telecoms Bill that is due before the House shortly, to make rent evaluations fairer, rebalance the market and ensure that we can get 5G broadband across the UK improved?
We have put forward an important piece of legislation on this, to get our ambitions out there on improved wireless and broadband connectivity. I would be keen to engage with the hon. Gentleman further on these issues, but we think we have struck the right balance between the mobile network operators and those who receive rents.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that the singing of the national anthem is something that provides a great sense of unity and pride in our nation. In this year of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, will he take steps to encourage national broadcasters to play the national anthem and ensure that the BBC restores it at the end of the day’s programming before it switches to News 24?
We fully support the singing of the national anthem, Her Majesty the Queen and other expressions of patriotism, including the flying of the Union Jack. The more we hear the national anthem sung, frankly, the better. Of course, organisations such as schools are free to promote it, and the more we can do in this area, the better it will be.
You may have a sense of déjà vu, Mr Speaker, when I tell you that before Christmas the Secretary of State appointed a preferred candidate as Charity Commission chair. Within a week he was gone, when it was discovered that he had sent a photo of himself in a Victoria’s Secret store. Does the Secretary of State do no vetting when she appoints candidates? When she appoints a new candidate, can she promise us that it will be less chaotic a process than last time round?
As I have said before, all our interview processes are undertaken in full compliance with the governance code and the principles given by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We asked Martin Thomas at interview whether he had anything to declare, which he said he did not. He has rightly apologised for his error of judgment during the application process. I have accepted his resignation. The Select Committee will examine this matter and the error of judgment, but of course he also passed through the cross-party Joint Committee process. We are reviewing our processes; we review them constantly. I am afraid there is not much more I can say about this.
On Monday I visited Harefield United football club in my constituency, which told me, as many other grassroots football clubs do, of its frustration at being unable to access excellent facilities in local schools. What discussions have taken place between the Department and the Department for Education about opening up those brilliant facilities to a wider range of grassroots sports clubs?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. We have to open up school facilities for more sporting activities. I have already had several conversations with DFE Ministers about opening up school facilities. We are also working together on the school sport and activity action plan, and in the spending review additional money was allocated to support the opening up of school facilities and the teaching of PE in primary schools. My hon. Friend is raising a really important point; more action will be taken.
We know that over Christmas children and young people would have been watching mainly streaming services rather than terrestrial TV, so can I press the Minister? Would it not be an easy and quick win to require all streaming services to use the British Board of Film Classification age verification system? We know that Netflix does, but Disney does not, which causes confusion for parents. This would be an easy, quick win for the Government, as well as everyone else.
I know that the right hon. Lady is passionate about this issue, which is something we are actively looking at, as I mentioned earlier. Those ratings are already voluntarily taken on by the likes of Netflix and others, but we are looking at what more could be done.
If there is evidence that officials in the Department have inadvertently advised the Secretary of State on the application of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the HMRC film production company manual, would this be of concern to her, and would she agree to meet me and my constituent about this matter?
I have met my hon. Friend in my office and we have discussed at length the situation regarding transport between film venues. It seems to fall into a difficult area. I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport and am awaiting his response. When I have had his response, I will revert to my hon. Friend further.
The minor reforms made as a result of the collapse of the Football Index by the Secretary of State’s Department are thin gruel for my constituents who lost thousands through that scam. What are the Government doing to ensure that both the Gambling Commission and the Financial Conduct Authority are fit for purpose, and that my constituents get the justice that they deserve after the collapse of that scam, the Football Index?
The Gambling Commission has revoked the licence of the Football Index’s operator. The individuals have surrendered their personal licences. The matter has been referred to the Insolvency Service, which is investigating allegations of directors’ misconduct. It has the power to conduct criminal investigations and criminal prosecutions, including for fraud if appropriate. On the broader question of compensation, there is no statutory basis upon which compensation can be paid to people who have lost money as a result of the collapse of a betting firm, but the investigations by the Insolvency Service are ongoing.
The Attorney General was asked—
Spending Review 2021: Law Officers’ Departments
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. May I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on her new role? She is familiar with the position of shadow Attorney General. I look forward to working with her in the future. The Government committed to improving performance across the criminal justice system in the spending review. For example, funding for the Crown Prosecution Service will increase by more than £80 million a year by 2025, which will be used to drive improvements in the prosecution of rape cases and to help to tackle the court backlog.
The Government will not rest until we have improved public safety. The recruitment of 20,000 new police officers will cut crime and get criminals off our streets. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that there are more than 300 new police officers in Lancashire, his own region, all working to keep our community safe. Of course, the success of those extra police officers will depend on corresponding increases throughout our criminal justice system, so that we have enough resources to deal with the increased workload created. That is why I am pleased that the CPS has recruited more than 300 more prosecutors since 2019, thanks to the Government’s funding.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and happy new year. It remains to be seen whether the funding allocated is sufficient to tackle the record backlog in court cases facing our country, but may I ask a specific question about one particular aspect of the backlog? This week, magistrates across the country will resume hearing the backlog of cases relating to breaches of covid restrictions over the last two years. Whatever we may think of that process, we know that those magistrates will be put in an impossible position if the laws that the Government are asking them to enforce are not applied equally to individuals working for the Government themselves. Will the Attorney General guarantee that, if Sue Gray concludes that covid restrictions were broken by individuals in Downing Street, there will be no barrier to those individuals facing the same legal consequences as everybody else?
The right hon. Lady makes it clear that she is more interested in scoring political points, frankly, than dealing with the court backlog. When it comes to the primary issue of the court backlog, I am very pleased to see that in the magistrates courts, where, let us be clear, the vast majority of criminal matters are dealt with, we are now seeing a fall in caseloads, going back to pre-pandemic levels. On the question that she actually asked, the process is being led appropriately by Sue Gray. That is the right response. Of course, all recommendations made by that independent process will be considered in the right way.
Strength of the Union
As the Attorney General for England and Wales, I have the Union at the heart of my work. I am pleased that, for example, CPS Wales performs very well: a recent inspectorate report concluded that the Wales CPS area has the highest magistrates court conviction rate across England and Wales. I take this opportunity to thank all our prosecutors based in Wales for their excellent work.
Over the past 18 months, my inbox has been full of people who are frustrated and confused by the differences between the England and Wales covid rules, my constituency being close to the border. As part of the devolution settlement, under the Wales Acts, there is provision for devolution to be suspended temporarily during times of national crisis in order for decisions to be made by Westminster for the whole of the United Kingdom. Will the Attorney General confirm whether she gave any advice to the Government along those lines? If not, what would a national crisis that would trigger such a clause be?
We must respect the arrangements set out in each of the devolution settlements, but I agree with one aspect of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which is that sometimes the rules of other Administrations can be confusing. This week, for example, under Welsh Government guidance it is okay to go to the pub, but not to the office. The vaccine roll-out and the immense financial support provided by the UK Government are two outstanding examples of what can be achieved when we work together as one United Kingdom, co-operating for the good of the Union.
A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker. A key aspect of the Union of which the right hon. and learned Lady is so fond is Scotland’s separate and distinct legal system. Does she agree that any actions taken by the UK Government on legal human rights remedies must continue to respect that, and that any attempt by Westminster to alter those protections against the will of the devolved Administrations would be contrary to the devolution settlement and yet another example of this Tory Government helping—thanks very much—rather than hindering the cause of Scottish independence?
The Law Officers are always concerned about any legislation promoted by the Scottish Parliament and Government that falls outside legislative competence. That is why I was pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with the Government earlier this year on the Bills proposed by the Scottish Government on the UN convention on the rights of the child and on local self-government. Ultimately, we are a United Kingdom. The people of Scotland have voted to remain as part of that United Kingdom, and I only wish that the hon. Lady and her party would respect that will of the people.
Violence against Women and Girls/Hate Crimes: Successful Prosecutions
This Government take tackling domestic abuse and hate crime extremely seriously, as shown by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and our commitment to publishing a new hate crime strategy later this year. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice and to protect the public, and it has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes.
Clearly not that seriously, certainly in Warwickshire; according to the CPS data, Warwickshire has the lowest conviction rate—47% conviction against prosecution—at 1.3%. Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, criticised that as the “effective decriminalisation of rape”. She is right, is she not?
No, she is not right. We understand, of course, that we need to do better when it comes to charging rape and to RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—outcomes. The Director of Public Prosecutions accepts that and I accept that. However, we must be fair about where the problem is, so that we can be frank about the solutions. About 10% of police referrals make it to the CPS and, in the most recent data, we see a slight increase—nationally—in the CPS charging rate when it comes to rape, so there are some early signs of improvement. Above all, we have a great commitment by the CPS and criminal justice partners to improve the situation. The rape review was published last year, and we have seen the RASSO 2025 strategy. Innovative processes around Operation Soteria and Operation Bluestone are changing the way police and prosecutors work to better tackle rape and serious sexual offences, so that victims are better supported through the process.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that the CPS and her Department invest in ensuring that we have the best-quality prosecutors for rape and serious sexual offences, as well as the manpower and the technology to deal with delays in disclosure, which is of particular relevance in these cases; but, equally, that we need a whole-systems approach to avoid the very considerable level of attrition that comes before, as she rightly observes, cases ever get to the charging stage? That means co-operation, above all, with the police at early stages of the investigation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he puts his finger on the problem. That is why the additional funding that the CPS received last year will partially be dedicated to improving its resources and firepower in dealing with RASSO. We will see a bolstering of specialist RASSO units. A hundred new prosecutors have already been trained in RASSO within the CPS, and within the next three months 70 experienced staff will be appointed into RASSO posts in the pathfinder areas.
I highlight the fact that Operation Soteria and Operation Bluestone in Avon and Somerset are being rolled out more widely throughout the CPS areas. They are pioneering better working between police officer and prosecutor, earlier investigative advice and greater support for victims to turn around the decline when it comes to victims’ withdrawal from the process; that is critical to the success of a prosecution.
I thank the Minister for that response. Not only is there clearly a need for successful prosecutions, but women—ladies—and girls feel particularly vulnerable and fearful in society today. What is being done across the UK to ease, protect and restore confidence among ladies and ensure that they feel safe on the streets of this country?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. He is absolutely right, and that is why we have rolled out an increased number of independent sexual violence advisers. That is why we are rolling out a victims code, because complainants—
I apologise, Mr Speaker. I wanted the Chamber to enjoy the oratory and eloquence of my hon. Friend, but we will be denied that for a few moments longer.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is right, but I want to emphasise the commitment to fighting violence against women and girls that this Government have not only talked about, but demonstrated through actions. Not only have we introduced new offences—for stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour, revenge porn and upskirting—but, as announced this week, we are making a new criminal offence of non-consensual photographing of breastfeeding women in public, and we have provided support on domestic abuse through our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021. This Government have pioneered a plethora of historic changes to show that we support women and girls and to make Britain a safer place for them.
Nationality and Borders Bill: Compatibility with International Law
To be clear, the UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and the fact that it discharges its international obligations in good faith. The Nationality and Borders Bill brings in vital changes to enable this Government, and our immigration and Border Force operatives, to stop the illegal and dangerous trafficking of illegal migrants. I encourage everybody in this Chamber to get behind this vital Bill and support it.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The Attorney General may well pride herself on international leadership, but does she therefore agree with the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who recently corrected the Home Secretary’s claim that British citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and pointed out:
“Having a nationality is not a privilege—it’s a human right”
that is protected by UN treaties to which the UK is a party and which the UK is obliged to protect?
What is clear is that we need to take tangible action to deal with the problem of illegal migrants crossing our channel and dangerous traffickers exploiting some of the most vulnerable people in the world, while we also need to fix our broken asylum system. That is why the Nationality and Borders Bill addresses some of these very important issues through tangible proposals. The Home Office will continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats, and I support that activity.
Does the Minister agree that the Bill helps protect our fight against human trafficking? It will be very interesting to see what the Lords sends back to us, but will the Government continue to commit themselves to ending this evil trade?
There are no two ways about it, and I am proud to say to my hon. Friend that I really support this Government’s attempts to end this evil trade, as he puts it. It is immoral that the criminal people traffickers are taking advantage of people and putting their lives at risk. The people making these crossings do not have the skills or the equipment to traverse some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world safely, and it is of fundamental importance that the Government disrupt this business model and make it untenable.
Over the Christmas holidays, I read “The Lightless Sky”, the account by Gulwali Passarlay of his journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan to the UK. After reading that book, I would ask the Minister—and I recommend that she reads it, too—whether she accepts that human traffickers only exist because of the absence of the safe and legal routes that this Government continue to deny to those who are in desperate need and fleeing for their lives?
We are subject to international obligations that make it clear that, if people have legitimate claims for asylum, there are safe and legal routes through which they may pursue those. To get on an illegally manned vessel and to try to break through our borders illegitimately is dangerous, immoral and unlawful.
Criminal Justice System: Disclosure between Parties
Effective disclosure is a vital part of the criminal justice process, and it is inseparable from the right to a fair trial. The Attorney General is now undertaking the first annual review of the disclosure guidelines to ensure that this complex area is continually monitored and that issues that can have such profound implications for securing justice for victims are identified and resolved.
I entirely agree with the Solicitor General that providing defendants with full disclosure of the evidence against them is extremely important, but it is also vital to ensure that police are not taken away from their frontline duties by overly bureaucratic requirements. Currently, for example, local officers in Aylesbury have to spend many hours redacting video evidence they send to the CPS before a charging decision is made just in case it is eventually shared with the defence. What can be done to reduce this burden so that police can be where they are most needed, which is on the streets?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for once again raising a really powerful point. In my discussions with police officers up and down the country, this issue of redaction has arisen again and again, and he is right that this is creating a serious administrative burden that absorbs resources that could profitably be deployed elsewhere. That is why I can assure him that this issue is receiving very close and current attention, and I expect to say more on that shortly.
While the digital data extraction forms that were imposed on survivors of rape are now, thankfully, a thing of the past, the culture that led to their introduction by the CPS and the police is, sadly, not. Could I ask the Attorney General how she is ensuring that women who come forward to report being raped receive the dignity, privacy and respect to which they are entitled?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is incredibly important that when complainants are brave enough to make these allegations, they are not then subject to intrusive, unnecessary and disproportionate disclosure inquiries. Getting that balance right is extremely difficult. There is clear guidance in the Attorney General’s guidelines, and the case of Bater-James and Sultan Mohammed is there as well, but we need to go further to make sure that correct, proportionate and fair decisions are made.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be shadowing the Solicitor General—we have missed him in Shepherd’s Bush.
Last month the Court of Appeal ruled the conviction of Ziad Akle, prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office, unsafe because there was a material failure of disclosure that significantly handicapped the defence. The court described this as a serious failure by the SFO to comply with its duty and said it was particularly regrettable given that some of the documents withheld had a clear potential to embarrass the SFO. It is difficult to imagine a more damning series of judgments on a prosecuting authority. The Attorney General, having recently expressed full confidence in the director of the SFO, has belatedly announced an inquiry, but the Attorney General superintends the SFO and her office line-manages the director, so will the Solicitor General confirm that this inquiry will be fully independent so that it can examine the Attorney General’s own role in this fiasco as well as that of the SFO and the director?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his kind welcome. That judgment was a significant one and we take it extremely seriously, but he is wrong to say that there was a delay, because the Attorney General moved very swiftly to institute a far-ranging and sweeping inquiry. That will take place, and it will take its time because we will need to consider extremely carefully what emerges from it. The SFO is an important prosecuting authority; it needs to do its job properly and fairly, and we will make sure it does exactly that.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 10 January will include:
Monday 10 January—Remaining stages of the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill, followed by a debate on motions to approve the charter for budget responsibility: Autumn 2021 update and the welfare cap as specified in the autumn Budget.
Tuesday 11 January—Opposition day (10th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 12 January—Remaining stages of the Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill, followed by motions to approve a money resolution and a ways and means resolution relating to the Glue Traps (Offences) Bill.
Thursday 13 January—General debate on the effectiveness of the Government’s education catch-up and mental health recovery programmes, followed by a general debate on the report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 14 January—Private Members’ Bills.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business—and it was lovely to hear the dulcet tones of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on the subject of private Members’ Bills. First, I would like to wish everyone a happy new year, and I hope that everybody had a well-deserved break over the recess.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said not once but twice that the warm home discount is £140 pounds per week. I checked, and it is actually £140 per year. There is quite a significant difference there, so will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister to correct the record or, better yet, cut the VAT on energy bills—something that we on the Opposition side of the House, and now some of his own Back Benchers, are calling for? That would help with the soaring energy bills for working families.
Talking of working families and concerns about their bills, perhaps the Leader of the House is more socialist than he has hitherto let on, given that, according to the Financial Times, he is now asking his own Government to scrap the national insurance tax rise, which is something that we have been calling for since it was announced. I wonder whether he is about to cross the Floor, because there is space. [Interruption.] There is some space; I am happy for us to swap sides completely if that is what he would like.
I have asked the Leader of the House numerous times for the location of the Online Safety Bill. I see that it appears in the Backbench business, but last year the Prime Minister said that it would have completed all stages by Christmas; then it was just Second Reading; and then it was just a vague commitment that it would happen at some point during the Session. The pre-legislative scrutiny Committee has reported, yet nothing is forthcoming. Could the Leader of the House please confirm when the Bill will be brought forward?
As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, over four years ago his Government promised a crucial anti-corruption and anti-tax-avoidance measure, with a public register of beneficial ownership of overseas legal entities, yet the Government have dithered and delayed. Could he tell us which black hole in the Treasury the Bill has fallen into?
Before Christmas, the Home Secretary published a written statement on the Home Office’s record of delivery for 2021. I have read the statement, and there did not seem to be any mention of the fact that under this Tory Government there are 10,000 fewer police officers than in 2010, that a woman is killed every three days in this country, that less than 1.5% of all reported rapes are prosecuted, or that prosecutions overall have plummeted. Tens of thousands more criminals are getting away with their crimes under this Tory Government. Recorded violent crime is up, and antisocial behaviour is up.
In the Home Secretary’s statement, there were hollow words too on Windrush, as there has been no compensation for 95% of the victims. Some have died without ever seeing justice, including my own constituent Stanley. His cousin Trevor is still with us, and he is still waiting for compensation. Will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to do the decent thing by coming to the House and correcting the record? This Government appear to be soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime.
It is not just the Home Office that is failing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) has found that the Ministry of Defence has wasted at least £13 billion of taxpayers’ money over the last decade. The current Defence Secretary has presided over £4 billion of that wasted money. The Public Accounts Committee concluded last year:
“The Department’s system for delivering major equipment capabilities is broken and is repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money”.
A staggering £64 million has been wasted on admin errors since 2010, including nearly £33 million in fines from the Treasury for poor accountancy practices. This Government clearly have no problem wasting taxpayers’ money and failing British troops. Without this careless wastage, funding could have been available to strengthen the UK’s armed forces, and the cuts forced by financial pressures to troops, planes, ships and equipment might not have happened. Will the Leader of the House please ask the Defence Secretary to come to this House and explain why his Department wastes so much public money?
So this year, for their new year’s resolution, it is time for this Government finally to put the people of this country above their own self-interests, to serve and protect the people of this country, and to stop wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned money, because all we have now is a Government who have lost their grip. It is working people who are paying the price, and they deserve better.
The hon. Lady’s seasonal wishes for a happy new year did not seem to last very long, but may I perhaps be more good natured and wish people not only a happy new year but a happy feast of Epiphany, which is an important day in our Christmas celebrations?
The hon. Lady thinks that I might be converted to her way of thinking, but that is wishful thinking. As her questions went on and on, it became clear that she was referring to taxpayers’ money, which is a good Tory principle. We always call it taxpayers’ money because we recognise that there is no money from anywhere else. Also, she is becoming a Eurosceptic; she has become a staunch Brexiteer. The only reason our socialist friends can advocate cutting VAT on fuel is that we have left the European Union. If we were still in the megalithic state that she used to campaign for—and that I think her constituents almost entirely voted for—we would not be able to cut VAT on fuel. I am delighted that she welcomes these flexibilities that come from Brexit. Not only do we have happy fish, having left the European Union, but we have increasingly happy socialists who realise that taking back control is a very useful thing to do.
The hon. Lady then complains—she moans and berates me—about there being no development in respect of the Online Safety Bill, when I have just announced a debate. This may have passed her by, because she quite likes to work remotely sometimes, but the amazing thing about debates in this House is that they are responded to by a Government Minister, so when we have a debate next week on the draft Online Safety Bill, if she listens carefully and bates her breath, she will be able to hear the views of Her Majesty’s Government on that Bill. I am grateful to the Joint Committee for its important work.
We then come to crime. The Conservative party has always been the party of law and order. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you do not want or need a history lesson, but it is worth bearing in mind that the Peelers—the Bobbies—were founded by a former Conservative Prime Minister in his distinguished period as Home Secretary. Sir Robert Peel was a Conservative.
Actually, he was chucked out by the Whigs, who voted against him on an Irish coercion Bill. The hon. Gentleman is forgetting his history for once; he normally likes to burnish his historical knowledge for the erudition of the House. We have recruited more than 11,000 police officers since 2019 and are more than halfway to meeting the promise of 20,000 more by 2023. We have done a great deal to tackle violent crime: from 2019 to 2022, in the 18 areas worst affected by serious violence we have spent more than £105 million of taxpayers’ money to develop 18 violence reduction units, and more than £136 million to support an enhanced police response.
If we really want to compare crime, let us look at two Mayors. The office of the Mayor of London—once a noble office held with distinction when it was graced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—is now sadly traduced as we see the record number of teenagers stabbed over the past year because of the failures of the Mayor of London, who cannot run a proper police service. When we had a Conservative Mayor of London, homicide fell: we had safer streets in London when they were Conservative streets. Now, with the socialists in charge, not only can we not move about because the Mayor hates the motorist, but we cannot be safe because he cannot run a proper police force.
We then have the audacity: if you thought, Mr Speaker, that the Labour party now advocating Brexit so that we have the freedom to set our own tax rates showed a bit of gall, the hon. Lady talks about expenditure in the Ministry of Defence when there was a £35 billion—that is serious money—black hole when the Conservatives came into office because Labour could not get the procurement systems right. Procurement is now run by the Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), who is one of the most distinguished Ministers in Her Majesty’s Government.
Yes, we need new year’s resolutions, and our new year’s resolution is to welcome those who have now become Eurosceptics and those who have now become Conservatives and to keep on with good Conservative measures that lead to better government and the protection of the British people.
May we have a debate in the Chamber on the establishment of local flood control centres that residents can call directly, 24/7? Yet again we have had very heavy rainfall in Staffordshire this winter, and farmers in Penkridge have advised me that the clay soil is fully saturated. Stafford residents need to have somewhere local that they can contact at any time, day or night, to help them when flooding occurs.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—actually, my hon. kinsman—for her question. I understand the devastation that flooding can cause for individuals, families and businesses. The Environment Agency operates the helpline and I will certainly bring her question to its attention. The helpline is a 24-hour service and covers the whole of England. The Environment Agency does have local knowledge of flood and environmental risks through its staff based in 14 geographic areas, but I will make sure that both the agency and the Secretary of State know of the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised for her constituents.
I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all the staff around the estate a good and happy new year.
Yesterday, the Scottish Parliament sat in an emergency session to discuss the omicron crisis in Scotland. It was all virtual, all elected MSPs could participate and the sitting provided absolutely no risk whatsoever to the staff on the Holyrood estate.
Yesterday, this House also met for the first time after the Christmas recess. It met entirely in person in a 19th-century building with practically no social distancing measures in place. All 650 Members could attend if they wanted to and a good proportion decided to come to a packed Chamber to listen to PMQs and a prime ministerial statement. Next week, we will find out the true consequences of that and how many people were infected on their journey down to the House of Commons.
It is estimated that one in 15 people in England, and one in 20 in the whole United Kingdom, now have covid. From my very bad arithmetic and calculations, I have come to the conclusion that some 50 MPs must now be off with covid away from the House, which means that 50 MPs cannot represent their constituents, participate in legislation going through the House, participate in the proceedings of the Glue Traps (Offences) Bill next week, question the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or help the Leader of the House to destabilise his Prime Minister if they cannot come here.
With one simple measure, the Leader of the House could resolve all that: turn it back on. He should bring back the hybrid Parliament and proxy voting. For the sake of democracy, turn it back on. For the sake of keeping everybody on the estate safe and secure, turn it back on. For the sake of all of us being able to represent our constituents, turn it back on, turn it back on, turn it back on.
I thought genuinely that the needle had got stuck on the last bit of the question. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not like doing his job, that he wishes to enjoy himself sitting at home and that he does not want to do what Members of Parliament are expected to do, and turn up in the House of Commons to be here—[Interruption.]
I remind the House that the SNP Government have decided to take a different route. They do not believe in trusting people to make decisions for themselves. They believe in constant perpetual lockdown which, as I understand it, the leader of the SNP has accepted did not go as well as anticipated, which sounds slightly like the comments of the Japanese Emperor at the end of the last war. What they have done in Scotland has not been a success. What we have done in the rest of the United Kingdom, in England, has worked better by trusting people. We should trust people and we should continue to trust people. People such as the hon. Gentleman should not be afraid to do the work that they have to do.
Can we have a Government review, followed by a statement, of the desirability of ending the ridiculous ritual of putting our clocks back every autumn, thereby plunging the nation into darkness and misery by mid-afternoon for a period of several months? Is there not a good case for keeping summertime in winter? It would cut the number of road accidents, cut energy use and boost tourism.
I invariably agree with my right hon. Friend, but not on this issue. As we all know, time was unified across the United Kingdom with the coming of the railways, otherwise my county of Somerset would be 10 minutes behind London. The way of doing things was to have midday when the sun is at its highest point, which always seemed to me to be a sensible principle.
I think that if we were to change, as we did in the late ’60s, we would simply change back again, because we cannot make the days any longer in the winter. They simply get dark. They are either dark in the morning or dark in the early afternoon, and whichever way it is, people will want it the other way round. Unless God is to give us more daylight, however, I think it is a problem beyond the competence of Her Majesty’s Government.
I wish you, Mr Speaker, Members on both sides of the House and all the staff of the House a very happy new year. We all deserve a better go at it this year than we had last year.
I also thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, and within that the Backbench business for Thursday 13 January. I give him advance notice that we have preliminarily filled slots for 20 January, with a provisional debate on the Chinese Government’s Uyghur tribunals, and a debate on the Committee on Standards’ review of conduct of Members of Parliament sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). On 27 January, we have lined up a debate on Holocaust Memorial Day. I give advance notice that I anticipate a request for a St David’s Day debate, which, if we are allocated the time, will probably occur on Thursday 3 March. May I also thank the Leader of the House for writing to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on behalf of my constituents and me, following our exchanges just before Christmas?
From Belthorn to Haslingden and from Great Harwood to Oswaldtwistle, my residents in Hyndburn and Haslingden are still blighted by fly-tipping. They report it to the local council, but no action is taken. Will the Leader of the House allow for a debate in Government time on what more we can do with legislation to make sure councils are enforcing action on those who blight our communities?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Fly-tipping is an absolute blight on society. It is illegal and there are penalties for it. Obviously, the primary responsibility lies with local councils. What my hon. Friend has done by highlighting the issue on the Floor of the House of Commons is to put pressure on her local council to get its act together. I hope her local newspapers will join her in campaigning to get the local council to do its job properly.
Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the four people who demanded racial justice with the removal of a slave owner’s statue in Bristol on being vindicated of charges of public dissent? We know that the Home Office has confirmed that records exist of contact between the Home Secretary, the Crown Prosecution Service, and Avon and Somerset police on this case. What we do not know is what is in those records. Given that it stands contrary to constitutional convention for politicians to be involved in legal matters while they are going through the courts, will the Leader of the House ensure that those records are shared with the House and allow time for Parliament to scrutinise this matter further, because our constituents want answers?
One of the great glories of this nation is the jury system. It is worth bearing in mind that Magna Carta was viewed as a reconfirmation of rights, not a creation of rights. Juries must be free to come to the decisions they choose to come to on the facts that are in front of them in relation to a specific case, and on what they hear from the prosecuting counsel, the defence counsel and the judge. We should always glory in the jury system as one of the foundation stones of our liberties in this country, whether we like individual judgments or not.
Energy costs are not a luxury; they are a necessity. They cannot be avoided: we need to heat our homes. My right hon. Friend will have heard that the official Opposition are now adopting Conservative views. They believe in lower taxation and in leaving the European Union. Would it be possible for this Government to believe in Conservative views? Will the Leader of the House lay a statutory instrument next week removing VAT on energy?
My hon. Friend knows perfectly well that that is a matter for the Chancellor and not a matter for the Leader of the House. What I would say is that Conservatives have always believed in fiscal good sense. We have always recognised that taxpayers’ money must be spent wisely. There is not an unlimited pot of other money and if we wish to provide the public services the country expects then that has to be paid for somehow. There is no magic money tree. It is very easy in opposition to point at any individual tax and say that that one should be cut, because there is no overall responsibility for ensuring that things are broadly in balance or heading towards balance. The responsibility of the Government and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to put all taxes and all expenditure together in a way that ensures that the country is able to live within its means. That responsibility sometimes means that individual taxes have to exist even though the Opposition may call against them, because they think there is short-term political advantage in doing so.
Both of Barnsley’s levelling-up bids were rejected. In answer to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), the Leader of the House said that there is no magic money tree—which is curious, because a millionaire hereditary Tory peer received £330,000 to level up the potholes in his mansion driveway. Can we have a debate in Government time about how levelling-up funding is allocated?
Levelling-up funding is allocated to help level up. Great things are happening: £4.8 billion in the levelling-up fund is being spent to help regenerate town centres and high streets, upgrade local transport and spend money on cultural and heritage assets; £2.4 billion of taxpayers’ money has been provided for 101 town deals, with a £150 million community ownership fund to protect valued community assets; and freeports are being opened up, which will be an incredibly good way of helping economic activity and helping to level up. I am sorry that not every application for funding will be successful, but I say to the hon. Lady, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.”
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind good wishes for Epiphany. If he and you, Mr Speaker, wish to join us on Margate seafront on Sunday for the blessing of the seas, I am sure that you will both be most welcome.
Shortly before Christmas, the Government reaffirmed their decision to introduce legislation to ban the import of the products of trophy hunting. Next Friday, the House will debate the Hunting Trophy Import (Prohibition) Bill, a private Member’s Bill with cross-party support. Will the Government consider giving that Bill their support? Alternatively, will they announce when they propose to introduce their own legislation?
The Government are committed to a ban on trophy hunting, which was a manifesto commitment. I will therefore ensure that my right hon. Friend’s comments are passed on to the Secretary of State. I can assure him that it is Government policy to proceed with a ban.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) and hon. Members across the House wrote to the Leader of the House this week to tell him how they have been affected by the lack of proxy voting or virtual participation and how they are looking for their reintroduction. This is not just a covid issue, but we can see now why it is so needed. The Leader of the House’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) just now was woeful: he suggested that people do not want to do their work. The opposite is true, as I am sure the Leader of the House knows, so can I ask him for a statement in Government time on how he intends to remedy the issue so that all Members can represent their constituents fully and equally?
A few minutes ago, the Leader of the House referred to knife crime across London. He will be acutely aware that 30 people died in knife attacks in London last year—an all-time record. Knife crime has certainly affected my constituency profoundly, but it is not just a London phenomenon; it is a curse across the country, and has been raised across the House by Conservative and Labour MPs and those of other parties. Is it not time that the Home Secretary came to the House and gave a statement on the increase in knife crime?
That is a serious issue. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is in the House of Lords at the moment, which should help to give the police more powers. It includes provision to ensure that stop and search can be used effectively, and we have announced the relaxation of voluntary restrictions of stop-and-search powers under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 in all forces across England and Wales. We are also introducing a new court order that will make it easier for officers to stop and search those convicted of knife crimes. Stop and search has continued to remove more weapons from the streets as its use increases: almost 16,000 weapons were seized and almost 79,000 criminals were arrested in the year to March 2021. It is a question of effective and determined policing and supporting the police. The additional 11,000 officers will obviously be an important part of that, as will supporting the legislation that is going through the other place.
Further to that point, just a week ago a 15-year-old boy was stabbed in my constituency, but non-fatally. A few hours later in Hillingdon, a 15-year-old was fatally stabbed and, a few hours after that, a 16-year-old in Croydon was fatally stabbed. The problem that I and seven other London MPs in this Chamber have is that we cannot scrutinise the Mayor of London, whose responsibility knife crime in the capital is. I therefore call on the Government and the Home Secretary to take back the powers so that she is able not only to scrutinise the Metropolitan police, but to ensure that we have a proper knife crime strategy, as we did under previous Policing Ministers and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he was Mayor of London.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is important that this House retains its right to hold to account people who exercise power in the land. It is surprising that with the rise in knife crime and the terrible incidents that he refers to, we are seeing at the same time a relaxation of drug laws. The two do not seem to me to go together.
I hope that the Leader of the House will join me in sending condolences to the family and many friends of my constituent Karl White, who died just before Christmas. Karl spent 32 years as a youth worker, including running the Meadows youth centre in my constituency. He was Mr Meadows—a role model, mentor and friend to hundreds, if not thousands of young people in Nottingham. Even after he retired, he was as busy as ever, volunteering for local community organisations and setting up free football sessions for local children just last summer. There could be no more fitting tribute than a debate in Government time on the urgent need to reverse cuts to youth services, which are so vital in supporting our communities.
I hope that the family will be comforted by the wonderful tribute that the hon. Lady has paid to Mr White, the 32 years of service that she mentioned and his continuing to inspire people, even in his retirement. I think it is right that Members honour their constituents and their families in this way. I suggest this may be an opportunity to seek an Adjournment debate and I hope that in that debate, the hon. Lady will expand on her moving tribute.
In North Devon, an ever-growing number of residents are unable to see a NHS dentist. Wait lists are now many years long. Although I recognise that work is going on through the Department of Health and Social Care to increase the number of home-grown dentists, that is at least five years away. Will my right hon. Friend allocate Government time to debate how we can rapidly take full advantage of Brexit to ensure that international dentists, particularly where they are plentiful, as in India, can more easily come and work here as NHS dentists in areas of severe shortfall, such as North Devon?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In my constituency, I visited a dental practice in Peasedown St John, which has a brilliant Indian dentist providing fantastic service to the local community. The Government recognise that the registration process for some internationally qualified dental professionals can be bureaucratic and inefficient. The NHS is working with the General Dental Council on legislative proposals that will allow greater flexibility to expand on the registration options open to international applicants, including the overseas registration exam. The proposals will be subject to public consultation, and the Department is also working with NHS England to reform the NHS dental system to improve patient access and oral health and offer value for money for the NHS, and it will be designed with the profession in mind. Health Education England’s “Advancing Dental Care” review programme has recently started and seeks to develop dental education and training infrastructure to produce a skilled, multi-professional oral healthcare workforce that can better support patient and population needs.
The Government finally published the national disability strategy last July, but it has been met with disappointment by a number of my disabled Vauxhall constituents, and there were no practical measures or funding outlined within it. The Leader of the House will be aware that the strategy was released just before recess, so there has been no parliamentary time for it or scrutiny of it. Given its importance, will he commit in this Chamber to our having a debate on it?
The Government are committed to ensuring that disabled people have the support that they need. It is worth pointing out that since 2013 we have reduced the disability employment gap by 4.9%, helping to get 1.8 million more disabled people into work. There is also extra taxpayer support of £780 million a year for special educational needs and disability education. Things are being done, and the health and disability Green Paper proposals will be detailed in the White Paper that is set to be published in mid-2022. I assure the hon. Lady that things are taking place. If she wants a debate, I suggest that she refers to the Backbench Business Committee, because there is a great deal to be said about the subject and that would help contribute to the White Paper’s development.
The Grimsby Telegraph website currently shows an article headed, “Free NHS prescriptions ‘to be axed’ from April”, which I believe to be misleading. My understanding is that Ministers are considering whether to charge the 60 to 65 age group for prescriptions that they get for free at the moment. Could a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to clarify what is proposed? Many of my constituents are emailing me because they are confused and worried.
As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Clearly, when local journals run with such stories, they create concern among people who are most unlikely to be affected, and my hon. Friend is right to give them the reassurance that they need and expect. I encourage journals of record to be more responsible and accurate in what they produce. I will ensure that he gets a full answer from the Department for Health and Social Care about exactly what may be proposed.
May I also wish everybody in the House a happy new year?
In Bath, our fantastic Royal United Hospital declared a critical incident over the new year—it is ongoing—due to covid and non-covid patients, staff sickness, absences and the availability of beds because of the social care crisis. The Government have clearly been asleep at the wheel. may we have a debate in Government time—not just covid statements—on the acute crisis in our hospitals to ensure that our hospital leaders are heard? Their experience at the frontline of the hospital crisis does not chime with the Prime Minister’s assurance that the NHS is not overwhelmed.
I agree with the hon. Lady that the RUH does terrific work. I went to see it recently, and it is a well-managed hospital that does its best under difficult circumstances. However, I think that her charge against the Government is ill-founded. Taxpayers have provided an extra £5.4 billion to the NHS to respond to covid-19 over the next six months, which takes the total this year to £34 billion. We have also given ambulance trusts an extra £55 million, as ambulances have been one of the issues. When I visited the RUH, I was conscious that it has an issue with the number of people who ought to be released into social care being considerably higher than normal. That pressure often occurs in the winter, but the very competent management at the RUH is doing a first-class job.
May we have a debate on the impact of NHS covid protocols on cancer sufferers? I was disturbed when a constituent got in touch to say that she needs weekly vital life-saving treatment at a hospital, but she has been told that if by any chance she comes into contact with someone who has tested positive for covid, she will not be allowed that treatment.
I always say to right hon. and hon. Members across the House that if they raise specific constituent issues at business questions, I will always take them up directly afterwards with the relevant Department. Treatment rates for cancer are now back to usual levels, and since the pandemic began more than 480,000 people have started treatment for cancer, but there is record spending of £2 billion to deal with the backlog and £8 billion over the next three years to deliver an extra 9 million checks, scans and operations for patients across the country. I reiterate my offer to take up my right hon. Friend’s specific case directly.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Children with disabilities often require specialist equipment to meet their needs but, because of lengthy delays in assessments, their conditions may worsen, resulting in complex surgery or interventions that could have been prevented. In a survey carried out by the charity Newlife, 68% of families reported that their child is living without the essential equipment they need right now. May we have a debate in Government time on the desperate situation in which disabled children find themselves because of delays in getting the equipment they need right now?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I have already set out what the Government have been doing in our disability strategy. I think it is better to deal with the individual cases, which we as MPs are well positioned to take up when they come to our attention. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), I am always happy to try to facilitate that. Sometimes citing the headline figures from surveys is not particularly illuminating.
Since coming to this House two years ago I have raised on numerous occasions my concerns about the level of borrowing by Warrington Borough Council. The Labour council now has debts of about £1.6 billion. Today there are reports in the national newspapers that Together Energy will be the 26th energy company to enter administration. That is particularly relevant to people in Warrington because £52 million of public money has been invested in that loss-making company by the borough council, and there would potentially be a catastrophic impact on local services were the company to enter administration. Can we have a debate in Government time on how councils are using public money to invest in private companies? I again urge the Government to launch an inquiry into this gambling by local councillors.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this question. Just before the 2017 general election I was on the Treasury Committee, and I lobbied the then Chairman for an inquiry into exactly this subject. Councils are not there to speculate; they are there to run public services and to handle taxpayers’ money well. I have a great quibble about using the word “investment” for local government expenditure, because actually it is spending taxpayers’ money. Local government should not be talking about investing; it should recognise that it is using other people’s money and therefore has a great fiduciary duty to spend it wisely. Councils that do not spend it wisely should be held to account both by Members of Parliament and, as they ultimately will be, by their electors.
During yesterday’s covid statement the Prime Minister made certain assertions, in response to the shadow First Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), about the UK Government’s support for the domestic diagnostics industry that were patently untrue. In my Adjournment debate last night, the Paymaster General failed to answer any of my questions other than to demonstrate his enthusiasm for profiteering. The UK diagnostics industry only wants a level playing field. That is all it is asking for. Will the Government bring forward a debate in their time to set out in detail the support they claim to be giving to the domestic diagnostics industry?
The purpose of business questions is to ensure that Members have the opportunity to raise the issues they wish to raise for debate. The hon. Gentleman tells me he has had the chance to question the Prime Minister and the Paymaster General on exactly this question. The fact he does not like the answers does not mean that the answers have not been given and that satisfactory parliamentary time has not been spent on the issue.
I am working hard with key partners in Wolverhampton to secure all the funding for the Wolverhampton city learning quarter. We still need some of that funding to come through, but we are delighted with what we have received so far. Will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate to ensure that all Wolverhampton children have the right start in life by setting up the city learning quarter?
I commend my hon. Friend for the brilliant work he is doing on behalf of his constituents in Wolverhampton. As I understand it, the city learning quarter is a most impressive project that supports the council’s objective to boost adult learning in the area with new facilities. The Government appreciate the importance of adult education to improving people’s life chances, so this project supports our wider aims to boost adult learning and reskilling, which we are doing through the adult education budget, the skills bootcamps and free level 3 courses for jobs, which are funding by the new national skills fund. We are spending taxpayers’ money on education across the country to give every child the best start in life, and we are targeting support at the most disadvantaged so that no one is left behind.
My hon. Friend asks when the money will come, and he is right to ask that question. I will make sure he gets an answer from the Department for Education on when the cheque will clear.
My constituents and many others have been incorrectly subjected to large fines, have incurred debt and are being chased by bailiffs for alleged non-payment of the toll at our Tyne tunnel since it changed to an open-road system. Last year I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport and was advised that these problems had nothing at all to do with the Government, yet some of these issues relate to byelaws that can only be changed by statutory instruments. Will the Leader of the House please explain if, as the Secretary of State indicated, the Government are no longer responsible for changing this legislation, who is?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I have enormous sympathy on the issue that she is raising. There is nothing more vexatious for our constituents than being fined by officious bodies for doing things that are perfectly normal to do, whether they are private road or private parking companies, who seem to specialise in this, or people chasing for tolls. She is quite right to stand up on behalf of her constituents on this. It would be most helpful if she would set out to me in writing precisely what byelaws need changing and then I can take that up with the relevant Department.
Can we have an early debate on the operation—or should I say the lack of operation?—of the vaccine damage payments scheme? In the year in which it has been operating, not a single payment has been made in respect of any victim of covid-19 vaccine. We know from recent inquests and from other detailed material from professors at Bristol University of the link between damage caused by vaccines and the need for compensation for those who are in the unfortunate minority of having so suffered. Is that not fundamental to improving vaccine confidence?
There should be huge vaccine confidence. What has happened with the vaccine programme and the booster programme has meant that this country has been able to get back to normal faster than almost any other country in the world. My hon. Friend and I would particularly note that it is thanks to the fact that we are not in the European Union that we were able to move so quickly. I encourage him to indicate his own confidence in the vaccine and support the vaccine roll-out, because that really has been essential to our economic reopening, to the health of the nation, and to the ability of the NHS to cope with covid. Of course everything else will be looked at in due course, but the success of the programme is fundamental.
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to everybody across the House.
Before Christmas, Virgin Care, which had contracts to deliver a number of NHS services, was taken over by a private equity firm called Twenty20 Capital. Yet we know little about the company’s priorities or strategic approach to delivering services other than the statement on its website that says that it looks for
“significant returns in 2-5 years.”
That will sound alarm bells for people working for it. What is more, the Health and Care Bill will allow integrated care boards to delegate functions, and even devolved budgets, to non-statutory bodies that could include such private equity firms. This has huge implications for patients and staff. So will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate on the impact of the Government’s NHS privatisation agenda, and will he ask the Prime Minister to come to this House and be straight with people in England by explaining to them that he is in fact dismantling the national health service as a public service and handing it gift-wrapped to big business? [Interruption.]
Last June, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) and I submitted a bid to the levelling-up fund to upgrade the Penistone line. This would result in much-needed improvements in train services between Huddersfield and Sheffield and double the number of trains serving stations in my constituency such as Penistone, Dodworth and Chapeltown. My constituents desperately need these improvements to travel to work, leisure and college, so will my right hon. Friend provide an update as to when we might hear whether our bid has been successful?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and for the terrific effort she is making in supporting levelling up and in backing her constituency. I understand from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities that a letter detailing the outcome of Kirklees Council’s application to upgrade the Penistone line was sent to the council in October, and I will therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to speak to my hon. Friend. I must warn Members that not every levelling-up fund application is successful, but I should also say, as I said to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), do keep on persevering.
Like many Members, perhaps even including the Leader of the House, I have many constituents who have been hit by increasing delays in, for instance, the commencement of state pension payments and the processing of applications to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, as well as by various Home Office delays. New figures suggest that the reason is, in large part at least, the slashing of more than 6,000 civil service jobs in the last decade while the proportion of civil servants in the highest grades has nearly doubled. May we have a debate on better support for our overstretched civil service operating at the coalface?
During these sessions I normally find myself trying to be as helpful as I can to the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid I have a slightly different view of why things have not been working. I think that many of those delays have been caused by problems with working from home, which is why it is so important for those who need to go into the office to do so.
The Mayor of London is proposing to sell Notting Hill police station to the highest bidder, which will mean that there is no physical police presence in the north of my borough. I have been working with my council and with local community groups, including the Kensington Society, to put together a bid for community uses, which could include a police station. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is completely wrong that the Mayor of London is selling a police station in London—in north Kensington—and that if he persists in this wrong action, he should prioritise the bid from a community group?
I think that a sentence involving the Mayor of London and wrong action is almost by definition tautologous, as his failures are manifest and emerge in these sessions week after week, particularly in relation to crime. It seems strange that at a time when crime is rising, police stations are still being sold off. I encourage my hon. Friend to persist in her advocacy of an alternative consortium which may be able to keep space for the police, and I also reiterate the points that I made about our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. When he was Mayor of London, crime fell by 23%. That was a triumph of leadership, and London needs better leadership.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House has had a chance yet to read today’s edition of the New Musical Express, but it contains a long article setting out the continuing problems—12 months after Brexit—for touring artists wanting to work across the European Union visa-free and without unnecessary costs and bureaucracy. In that article, the chief executive officer of the Featured Artists Coalition said:
“To get all of this information we’ve had to get it from multiple sources, but none of them were the government.”
Now that the major obstacle is out of the way with Lord Frost’s welcome departure, may we have a debate about focusing on solving this problem once and for all?
I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman about my noble Friend Lord Frost, a most distinguished figure and servant of this Government and of the nation.
The hon. Gentleman knows that these matters are being discussed between Her Majesty’s Government and individual member states of the European Union, which have responsibility for them. As I think he acknowledges, considerable progress has been made, with a number of countries being very willing to have reciprocal arrangements. May I confess, however, that I have failed, in that I have not read the New Musical Express this morning or, indeed, on any morning that I can recall?
The Environment Agency is now formally investigating alleged criminal activity at Walleys Quarry landfill in my constituency. It is ultimately owned by Red Industries, a company controlled by Mr Adam Share, who in the past has been convicted and sent to jail for bugging the Environment Agency over another landfill. I also note the recent media reports about illegal fly-tipping—which was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe)—and rogue waste dealers. One journalist had successfully registered his dead goldfish as a waste dealer with the Environment Agency. May we please have a debate on the regulation of, and the criminality within, Britain’s waste industry?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those appalling and absurd crimes. How could somebody register a goldfish as a waste dealer? The Government are preparing significant reforms to continue to increase the pressure on illegal waste operators. Our planned electronic waste tracking reforms will make it harder to misidentify waste or dispose of it unsuitably. Our planned changes to the carriers, brokers and dealers licensing regime will improve licensing and make it harder still for rogue operators to escape detection, but I suppose it is to some extent reassuring to my hon. Friend, and to me, that the gentleman he referred to has been found guilty, convicted and sent to jail. Sometimes the law does take its course, in all its majesty.
Some 8.5 million people entered this year in debt. With one in six people struggling to pay bills, escalating food, fuel and housing costs mean that the situation is getting more and more acute. In York, we have launched a poverty truth commission to start addressing the issues, but we know that a lot of the solutions lie in this House, so can we have an urgent debate about the impact of poverty and the solutions that need to be brought forward urgently?
I wonder if I may divide the question into two parts—one on providing support for people in debt, and the other on what the Government and taxpayers are doing to support people in poverty—because I think the two questions, though related, are not identical. Some people get into a spiral of debt for which there are very good organisations in all our constituencies that do amazing work. We should all, as individual MPs, try to point our constituents in the right direction to get help. Often interest rates and repayments can be significantly reduced simply by entering into a conversation with the lenders.
With regard to what the Government have been doing on poverty, the Government are aware of the difficulties, and there is £4.2 billion of support available. Raising the national living wage to £9.50 next year will help. Giving nearly 2 million families an extra £1,000 a year through the cut to the universal credit taper and the increase to work allowances will also be important. Both of those things will help work to pay, and work is unquestionably the best way out of poverty. There are a number of other schemes, but time is pressing, so unless I get another question on the matter I will not go into them all.
My right hon. Friend may be aware of research that was published on 23 December in The BMJ, just after we all voted for plan B, that suggests that a triple dose of the vaccine, three months after the third dose, offers pretty much zero protection against transmission of the Omicron variant. I hope that he agrees that it would be unthinkable to insist that NHS workers should have a jab every three months by law. If that research is accepted by the Government, will he make time for this House to repeal the compulsory vaccination of health workers before it comes into effect on 1 April, thereby saving the NHS tens of thousands of staff and restoring the principle that, in this country at least, vaccination is the free choice of a free people?
My reading material was not the NME nor The BMJ. If somebody asks me about The Spectator I may be able to give a more positive answer. My hon. Friend raises a very difficult issue. We are a free country, and it is important that we maintain essential liberties. Enforced medication has been extraordinarily rare, though there were examples of compulsory smallpox vaccination in the 19th century. The Government are absolutely of the view—this view is held much more broadly than simply by members of Her Majesty’s Government—that vaccination is our best defence against covid. Vaccination reduces the likelihood of infection and therefore helps to break chains of transmission, and is safe and effective. Any increase in immunity of workers from vaccination will reduce the risk of harm to patients and service users, as well as to our valuable health and social care workforce. Therefore, I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but Her Majesty’s Government do not agree that the regulations on the vaccination of health and care workers should be revoked.
Happy Epiphany, Mr Speaker, and I hope that the Leader of the House has many epiphanies. May we have a debate on drug and alcohol services in the country, partly so that we may celebrate the amazing work that is done by the clinicians in those services, often in difficult circumstances, partly so that we may encourage more people to take up that profession, because there is a massive shortage of clinicians across the whole country, and partly, perhaps more importantly—because I suspect every single one of us knows someone who might have been affected by such services—to celebrate those extraordinary people who might have had a problem with drug or alcohol but absolutely have managed to turn their lives around? Should we not celebrate them?
In a spirit of good will on Epiphany, may I say how much I agree with the hon. Gentleman? I cannot promise a debate, but we should certainly celebrate people who either through their own actions recover from a dependency or help others to recover. I am a great believer that people should have a second chance, a third chance and a fourth chance, and that everything that can be done by parts of the state or voluntary bodies to help that is worth celebrating. I am glad to see that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is still in his place, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has asked once and been successful so, if we are keeping to the biblical theme:
“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find”.
Since being elected, I have met a large number of parents and community organisations, including the West Yorkshire ADHD Support Group, asking for my help to improve special educational needs provision in our schools. Following those discussions and after much research, it is apparent that some schools offer far better SEN provision than others. That disparity should not exist. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on SEN provision in our education system to ensure that all children, regardless of need, are provided with the same opportunities in life?
This is so important—I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The recent spending review makes available £2.6 billion of new funding across the next three years for new school places for children with special educational needs and disabilities. That represents a transformational expenditure of taxpayers’ money in new high-needs provision and it will help to deliver tens of thousands of new places. What my hon. Friend is asking for is happening, but I will ensure that his comments are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary.